In an event unlike anything in its history, California State University, Northridge held a commencement ceremony for two graduating classes on May 15.

It was a day to celebrate the life-changing achievements for the 11,151 graduates of the class of 2019-20 and the 11,538 graduates of the class of 2020-21, many of them the first in their families to complete a degree.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic prevented a traditional in-person commencement for the second straight year, conditions have improved enough to allow for a hybrid ceremony, with live remarks delivered by CSUN leaders in the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts, as well as moving pre-recorded segments. The May 15 all-university ceremony, the first in a series of commencement events, was streamed live on YouTube and Facebook, where commenters congratulated their loved ones and left festive emojis of hearts, high-fives and party poppers.

“Know that as we gather here today virtually, the tens of thousands of people who would have been physically gathered on campus to cheer your accomplishments are here, and we are cheering for you,” said CSUN President Erika D. Beck. “Yes, campus is quiet today, but the collective enthusiasm in celebrating you has not diminished. We are here as a community in this virtual space filled with friends and families, from down the street to across the globe, to celebrate the mark that we know you will be making on the world beyond our doors.”

In her remarks, Associated Students President Rose Merida eloquently captured the bittersweet nature of the moment.

“I think I speak for all of us when I say we miss our campus,” she said. “We miss its beauty, we miss its people. We miss the smell of the orange blossoms in the spring, we miss the vibrancy of the noontime concerts, we miss taking in the beautiful University Library as we walk with our friends to class. We miss passing the Matador statue and feeling that pride of what it’s like to be a Matador. And yet, we have much to remember, so many special memories that will be with us always.”

Merida then introduced a video showing Matador students at work and play on campus over the last few years, praising their traits and abilities.

Speakers at the ceremony predicted that, in time, the graduates would be even more proud of what they accomplished during this world-historical pandemic. Those speakers included California State University Chancellor Joseph I. Castro, who delivered a video address.

“It’s been my great honor to congratulate many graduating classes over the course of my career in education, and I plan to congratulate many more,” Castro said. “I’ve been impressed by them all, proud of every one, but you will always hold a special place in my heart. I will forever remember and admire your spirit, your determination and your achievements. Your future is bright. Your future is limitless.”

“I hope that when you are asked about this time in your lives, you reflect on your ability to rise in the face of darkness and stand as a beacon of hope for the promise of the future,” Beck said. “The tragic, ongoing and intersecting crises we have navigated this year have left an indelible imprint on us all. But instead of letting it knock you down, you decided to rise up and embrace the future that is meant for only you.

“Your faculty, staff and I could not be more proud that you did, because, graduates, the world has never needed your talents, your perspective and your leadership more than it does today,” Beck continued. “You give us hope that in spite of the unprecedented challenges our world is facing at this very moment, the future is bright because you will be leading it.”

U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla urged the graduates to remain engaged and vocal about the issues that matter to them.

“I urge you to be inspired by the best and the most challenging moments of your education as you continue on to your careers,” Padilla said. “Our country needs your leadership, your empathy and your voice, now more than ever. And if I can leave you with one final piece of advice, it’s to think big. When I graduated college, I never would have imagined that I would one day be a United States senator. So, shoot for the stars, stay focused, work hard and don’t shy away from the incredible opportunities that will come your way.”

Los Angeles County guidelines meant that the all-university commencement ceremony production followed strict COVID protocols, including having a COVID-19 Compliance Officer and a COVID-19 Health and Safety Orientation.

Though some of the traditional elements were still in place, including the platform party, the regalia and the presence of the ceremonial mace, many traditions were modified to be in line with protocols.

William Watkins, vice president for Student Affairs and dean of students, and Mary Beth Walker, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, combined to recognize the outstanding graduates from the classes of 2019-20 and 2020-21.

Those being recognized included Daniel Bustos and Jennifer Anderson, named this year’s Wolfson Scholars, the top award given to graduating seniors; Natasha Feldman, recipient of the Nathan O. Freedman Memorial Award for Outstanding Graduate Student; and Desiree Cuadra, Aditi Dwivedi, Denise Nguyen and Angelle Thomas, each named an Outstanding Graduating Senior.

The 2020 honorees were Omar Ullah, the 2020 Wolfson Scholar; Crystal Venegas, the Nathan O. Freedman Memorial Award for Outstanding Graduate Student; and Heaven Barnett, Tyrone Carter, Xochitl Hernandez, Tracy Johnson, each named an Outstanding Graduating Senior.

The event was punctuated with pre-recorded video touches. The National Anthem was sung by graduating music majors Amelia Camacho and Israel Segura and performed in American Sign Language by Deaf studies graduates Jasmine Harris, Alysha Spires, and Xiali Wu.

In a tradition that started in 2020, Watkins recognized, acknowledged and honored the Sesevitam, the first people of the ancestral and unceded territory of Sesevenga — which is now occupied by CSUN — and their descendants, citizens of the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians. A tribal blessing for the graduates was performed by tribal President Rudy Ortega Jr. and his sons, Tomiear and Noli Ortega, as well as CSUN alumnus Mark J. Villaseñor ’16 (Global Supply Chain Management), vice president of the Tataviam Band.

CSUN’s a cappella group Acasola ended the event with the alma mater, “Hail to the Matadors.”

The all-university ceremony was just the first event in a series of celebrations to recognize the achievements of the classes of 2019-20 and 2020-21. College-based virtual ceremonies — where each graduate will be recognized by name and with a photo — are scheduled to take place May 21-24. In addition, the university will be hosting a series of in-car commencement parades the week of May 25.

The May 15 ceremony is available to view on YouTube.

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